May 26, 2016 The Howling – Still A Hair-Raising Experience After 35 Years
The early 1980’s saw not only a slew of Slasher films, but also a resurgence of the ravenous Werewolf in films like 1981’s An American Werewolf in London and 1984’s The Company of Wolves. One of the best films of the Werewolf subgenre is Joe Dante’s 1986 The Howling, released on April 10th of 1981. The Howling featured a strong cast that included Dee Wallace (E.T. The Extra Terrestrial 1982, Cujo 1983), Christopher Stone (Spencer’s Pilots TV Series 1976, Cujo 1983), Dennis Dugan (Can’t Buy Me Love 1987, Problem Child 1990), Patrick Macnee (The Avengers TV Series 1961, Waxwork 1988), Belinda Balaski (Piranha 1978, Gremlins 1984), Robert Picardo (976-EVIL 1988, The Wonder Years series), and Elisabeth Brooks (Deep Space 1988, The Forgotten One 1989). Now celebrating its thirty-fifth anniversary, it stands to reason to reflect on the film that helped shape the history of Werewolf Horror.
Karen White (Wallace) is an investigative reporter covering a story about a serial murderer named Eddie (Picardo) that is plaguing the city. She agrees to meet with the killer in a place and time of his choosing, which just happens to be a video booth in a porno-shop. Just as he is preparing to kill her, his voice changes. She turns around and screams just as the police show up and shoot Eddie dead. Afterwards, Karen is plagued by nightmares and amnesia, and at the request of her doctor (Macnee), she and her husband Bill (Stone) go up to the Colony, to attend some self-help seminars and try to relax and remember, only the Colony turns into a hotbed of lycanthropic terror shortly after Karen arrives.
The Howling had a troubled pre-production. The original director and writer, Jack Conrad (Producer: Country Blue 1973, The Howling), left the project for “creative differences,” so Joe Dante, who was to be the director of Jaws 3 (1983), which was humorously entitled Jaws 3, People 0 at the time, was brought in to direct on the condition that the script be re-written. Dante brought a decent amount of tongue-in-cheek humor to the film by naming all the male characters after directors of Werewolf films, like Kevin McCarthy’s (Invasion of the Bodysnatchers 1956, UHF 1989) character was named Frederick W. Francis after English director Freddie Francis (Director: Tales From the Crypt 1972, Legend of the Werewolf 1975). He also referenced films like The Wolf Man (1941), and disavowed some of the Hollywood tropes like only transforming during the full moon. On working with Joe Dante, Dee Wallace adds, “I adore Joe. He is so creative, fun and loving. He really took care of us all both creatively and personally. He had such a vision: the ode to former icons and insights for the fans. He bought many of the old clips and commercials to use himself. I love Joe. Still!”
With an estimated budget of around one million dollars, The Howling was shot in Mendocino Woodlands Camp, Hollywood, and Los Angeles, California from May-June 1980. By the end of its theatrical run, The Howling had grossed nearly eighteen million dollars, making a it a box office hit, which spawned seven less than stellar sequels. Even back then, a million dollars was not terribly huge for a studio film and some corners were cut towards the end of production, like when Karen makes her transformation, the viewer will notice that it is shot very close-up. This was due to the fact that they were shooting in a different office and set in which it started moments earlier. However, they worked with what they had. For instance, the production designer, Bob Burns (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 1974, Re-Animator 1985), used a lot of props and aesthetic from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. When the two Nuns walk into the bookstore, if the viewer looks to the right of the frame, they will notice the mummified “Grandma” from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Dee Wallace, much like any role she has played, was masterful in the part of Karen. She had a sort of subdued anxiety. For example, her voice is sweet and she speaks as if she is in a constant, dreamlike, sort of state, but her face emotes the intensity in which her voice speaks. She discusses how she does not do a lot of prep for a role and that she just reacts to what is happening. Christopher Stone and Wallace had great chemistry as husband and wife, and for good reason: they were engaged at the time. Wallace has said they could not find an actor to play her husband, so she threw out Christopher’s name and left out that he was her fiance. Bill is a devoted husband, health nut and vegetarian, but after he is attacked by a werewolf, that all changes. Wallace recounts her time on the set of The Howling and working with her husband: “I loved Joe and Dan and the part. And I was sharing the screen with my fiancé, Christopher Stone. It doesn’t get any better than that!” Belinda Balaski’s Terry is the serious, but sweet best friend and co-worker of Karen, and a testament to their friendship is when Karen calls her late at night and begs her to drive up to the Colony, which she does without protest and arrives the next day. Dennis Dugan’s Chris is Terry’s boyfriend and co-worker who joins the fight when he gets a frantic call from Terry at the Colony.
Elisabeth Brooks’ Marsha was sex personified. At one point, Karen calls her a “bitch in heat,” and that is exactly what she was, in every sense of the word as she seduces and turns Bill away from Karen. Finally, the cast is rounded out by genre veterans such as Dick Miller (A Bucket of Blood 1959, Gremlins 1984), and John Carradine (The Astro-Zombies 1968, Shock Waves 1977), with cameos by Roger Corman (Director: X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes 1963, The Masque of the Red Death 1964), Mick Garris (Director: Critters 2 1988, Psycho IV: The Beginning 1990), and Forrest J. Ackerman (Creator of Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine).
The Special FX were originally going to be done by Rick Baker, but he left to do An American Werewolf in London (1981), leaving the effects job for this film in the hands of Assistant Rob Bottin (John Carpenter’s The Thing 1982, RoboCop 1987). Up until very recently, Werewolf transformations were done by dissolves in which the make-up artist would add a layer of make up, they would shoot, then add another layer of make-up, and so on and dissolve the shots together. Many air bladders were used under a layer of latex to give the illusion that the body was physically changing. All in all, there are more scenes of transformation than actual Werewolf action. The only full bodied Werewolf is the scene where Eddie transforms and attacks Terry and a little bit at the end as Karen and Chris are escaping. Both The Howling and An American Werewolf in London were released the same year and both received praise for their makeup work.
Critically, The Howling was well received. In 1981, Roger Ebert’s two out of four star review described The Howling as the “silliest film seen in some time,” but Ebert also said the special effects were good and the film was perhaps “worth your money, IF you get it two for one.” However, Ebert’s television partner, Gene Siskel, liked the film and gave it three and a half stars out of four. Leonard Maltin also wrote in his book, 2002 Movie & Video Guide, that The Howling is a “hip, well-made Horror film” and noted the humorous references to classic Werewolf cinema. Variety praised both the film’s sense of humor and its traditional approach to Horror.
The Howling is a genuinely terrifying film sprinkled with humor for a good movie watching experience, and even after thirty-five years, still remains one of the best Werewolf films ever made. Wallace herself states, “I think it’s a true nod to classic horror: a great story, great characters you care about, great actors and amazing special effects, creative direction and editing. It is a film the Horror genre can be proud of!” Thousands of fans would agree with her, and that is why The Howling still has bite all these years later.